The Diving Pool (Three Novellas)
Yoko Ogawa
(translated by Stephen Snyder)
Picador
ISBN Number: 0312426836

Reviewer: Matthew Katz


          Like Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, Yoko Ogawa’s sparse dialogue probes the most turbulent psychology with unerring quietness. And like Asian American short story writers anthologized in the O. Henry and Best American Short Stories collections of the past five years—such as Vu Tran, Yiyun Li, and Mary Yukari Waters—there’s violence ever lurking close beneath the plot’s surface.

          But don’t be fooled by surface similarities. Those short story writers, Tran and Waters especially, don’t shine much more brightly than other short story writers anthologized today. Their prose, sometimes needlessly wordy, reads like much of published short fiction today: short stories wishing they were novels. Ogawa’s novellas read so precisely (there’s hardly a single word wasted in the first tale, "The Diving Pool") and clearly—despite an utter lack of exposition dragging down their beginnings—that they come across like novels pared down to great short stories.

           From the first novella, "The Diving Pool," Ogawa’s art emerges in language choices. Details she chooses illuminate character—but slowly, not revealing too much at once about the natures of young Aya (the protagonist) or Jun (the high school diver she’s grown enraptured by). Ogawa’s masterful use of language betrays Aya’s frustration as the only biological child of parents who run an orphanage: sensing no difference between the care her parents provide her and the other, younger, parentless children, she harbors a deep resentment. The oldest charge at the orphanage is Jun, Aya’s fascination. Viewing him through Aya’s first person narration and Ogawa’s skillful language, the reader is struck by the intense discipline and concentration that define him. When Aya nurtures an inexplicable proclivity for abusing Rie, one of the younger orphans, the plot brings Aya and Jun to an epiphanous collision that will jar readers.

           Some of Ogawa’s language choices will startle. Few fiction writers make such unique choices and achieve so much by them. Take, for example, how Ogawa describes the front gate to the Light House, the orphanage where Aya lives:

Next to the gate is a glass-covered notice board with a neon light, and on it is posted the Thought for the Week: WHO IS MORE PRECIOUS? YOU OR YOUR BROTHER? WE ARE ALL CHILDREN OF GOD, AND YOU MUST NEVER TREAT YOUR BROTHER AS A STRANGER. Every Saturday afternoon, my father spends a long time looking through the Bible before carefully grinding ink on his stone and writing out this Thought. The smell of the ink permeates the old box where he keeps his brushes and grinding stone. He pours a few drops from the tiny water pot into the well of the stone, and then, holding the ink stick very straight, he grinds the stick into a dark liquid. Only when he finishes this long process does he finally dip his brush. Each gesture is done slowly, almost maddeningly so, as if he were performing a solemn ritual, and I am always careful to creep quietly past his door to avoid disturbing him. (7)

          A remarkable paragraph: wouldn’t most authors describe the calligraphy process first and then, chronologically as well as dramatically, finish with the biblical quote? Here Ogawa dismisses God’s wisdom early, foreshadowing the ending in a way that readers will inevitably forget. More importantly to Ogawa, the reader learns about the quotidian task of calligraphy and the assault on the senses that process entails. She ends the paragraph by qualifying the sincerity and religiosity of the act with figurative language—to Aya it is "as if" this is a "solemn ritual"—and, as Aya slinks away undetected, her alienation feels profound.

          Ogawa’s second novella, "Pregnancy Diary," assaults its characters’ (and, through another female protagonist’s first-person narration, the readers’) senses of taste and smell. This narrator, several years older than the one of "The Diving Pool," scrawls curiously detached diary entries tracking the nausea and other sufferings of her pregnant sister (as well as the feckless stabs at soothing applied by the narrator’s brother-in-law). What propels the plot is anything but the nascent human life causing it: the pregnant sister’s somatic sufferings and labile wailings; the narrator fielding these with demure patience; the conversations they have about the baby that lack even a shred of love, insight, or devotion to that unborn life.

          Surprisingly, "Pregnancy Diary" unfolds compellingly and even sometimes humorously. The morning sickness is dramatic, and while the sister’s recovery from it should be expected, its ending feels dramatic too. Equally dramatic (while nowhere near extraordinary) are the weight losses and gains the sister experiences. It does not ruin the story to reveal that the narrator is largely responsible for larding on much of the sister’s forty-odd extra pounds with a grapefruit jam she handcrafts regularly. Nor is it a spoiler that the jam is possibly harmful to the unborn child in a way that the narrator learns from a TV documentary. Ogawa’s artistry is her decision to weave a tale using such curious threads, then rendering a fascinating but uncertain conclusion.

          The final novella, "Dormitory," once again displays Ogawa’s mastery at capturing violence to the senses. A first-person narrator begins to describe a sound that haunts her; the reader, utterly bewildered from the start, has no idea what is being described or why. Even more mystifying, the narrator spends the story’s first five paragraphs describing visual memories and tactile sensations she associates with the sound—but still does not describe the sound itself: she connects the sound to what she could remember her decaying college dormitory looking like, feeling "traces of life even in the decaying concrete, a warm rhythmic presence that seeped quietly into my skin." The narrator then admits that the sound might not even be a sound:

It might be more accurate to say it was a quaking, a current, even a throb. But no matter how I strained to hear it, everything about the sound—its source, its tone, its timbre—remained vague. I never knew how to describe it. Still, from time to time, I attempted analogies: the icy murmur of a fountain in winter when a coin sinks to the bottom; the quaking of the fluid in the inner ear as you get off a merry-go-round; the sound of the night passing through the palm of your hand still gripping the phone after your lover hangs up.... But I doubted these would help anyone understand. (110-111)

          Again, Ogawa deftly shapes fiction with details that evade rather than solidify, figurative language that qualifies rather than certifies. Images of death, injury, the vicissitudes of young love—they all presage what will and (importantly) will not unfold.

           The narrator of "Dormitory," several years older than the "Pregnancy Diary" narrator, continues the cycle/lineage of young women providing questionable care to younger family. Here, at the urging of a younger male cousin, she secures him housing at the old decaying college dormitory that—by all accounts, even that of its manager—is haunted by death and abandonment. Her college memories bear no romantic fruit, nor does any connection she strikes with the distant cousin. Even her husband abroad in Europe, awaiting her move from Tokyo to join him in Sweden, reads like a stale afterthought: a neglected, if ever existent, romance. Strangely enough (or, in the case of Ogawa, aptly enough), the only character who stokes the passions of the narrator is the dormitory manager, an old frail man missing both arms and a leg, doomed by some unnamed violence.

          How the old crippled man and the soundless sound come to haunt the narrator will surely captivate readers. That is, readers who relish the opportunity to discover a writer who, despite her twenty years of publishing, reads like a revelation. To appreciate Ogawa fully, note those curious language choices she makes: as Kenzaburo Oe offers in his novel, A Quiet Life, "merely listen...though intently."


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